Sunday, December 24, 2017

Dec 24, 2017 - God Become Love

You must all be ready for Christmas, right? I can tell by the way you’re all sitting there so calmly that you’re set. No more presents to buy, no more menus to plan, you’ve done everything you need to do, and you are good to go. You must feel so relaxed, so calm and peaceful. 

Myself, I could use another month. I mean, I’ve got (most) of the presents I’ve needed to get, the house is decorated and mostly clean. My mother is handling the food. My list is checked off (as soon this service is done). And yet, I actually feel kind of stressed. I’m worried that the presents won’t bring as much happiness as I hope. I’m worried that the kids will get into an argument (either the little kids or the adult kids), and that our Christmas gathering won’t be as calm as I want it to be. When it comes right down to it, I’m worried that the love that we’re all supposed to feel for one another, for friends and family and for strangers and the world at large, the love that is supposed to saturate this holiday and seep through every moment and give us all a magical glow... I’m worried that this Christmas love, which comes so easily in church right now, and which is the whole point of Christmas, will become, once again, so much harder when the day is over. And so, really, I don’t feel quite ready Christmas. I haven’t done everything that needs doing. It’s too hard.

Maybe you know what I’m talking about? Maybe you’ve experienced that this work of Christmas love is hard? We like to think it’s easy, especially when there’s good food, and presents, and beautiful music, and candlelight. But tomorrow, and in the days to come, when there are too many people in the house, and too many dishes to get on the table, when we’re wondering why we spent so much money on presents, when the kids are arguing because they’re tired and have had too much chocolate, we will experience that love is hard. 

Love is a hard thing to do at Christmas because it can’t be manufactured, or bought at the store, or ordered over Amazon. We like to think it’s easy––we sing all these Christmas carols about it, and sign our Christmas cards with “love,” we “love” all the cute holiday posts on social media. But real love––true, authentic, honest love––is not so easy. Loving a person, rather than a picture or a pithy saying, is harder. It requires compassion, and understanding, and vulnerability. It requires us to be honest about our own shortcomings and weaknesses so that we can accept the shortcomings and weaknesses of others. Love at Christmas means coming out from behind the trappings of the holiday and being who we are underneath it all and accepting others for who they are. Easy? No.

And so we’re in a bit of a conundrum. We know that love is the most important thing at Christmas. This is what we are here to celebrate, right? That out of love God came into the world as one of us? That God became love for the world? We’ve been told for the last month that we need to get ready for this love, to prepare for Christ to come. And yet love is the hardest thing to do. We aren’t really celebrating Christmas if we don’t have it. So what do we do? 

Well, first of all, take a minute and breathe. A nice big breath, all the way in through your nose, and out. Lower your shoulders, and breathe once more. Rest. 
You see, it’s already been done. What God did that first Christmas night was to do what we can’t always do: to become love for the world. This is why we are here tonight.

Becoming love means becoming flesh and living amongst us. Becoming love means taking on one of these frail, imperfect bodies, and becoming immersed in the challenges of being human. Becoming love means becoming all of those things that love requires - compassion, vulnerability, understanding. And so this is what God did by becoming flesh in Jesus Christ. God, who is love itself, became love in the flesh. At one of the darkest times in a people’s history, God became flesh out of compassion for those who were suffering from oppression. Rather than blaming the victims of the system for their weakness in allowing themselves to be dominated, rather than telling them that it was their fault, God became one of them. God could have taken flesh and been born as the Son of a Roman Emperor, so that all the wrongs could be righted from the top. God could have loved from on high, without becoming entangled in the lives of those all around. But instead, God came as just one more baby born under the tyranny of Emperor Augustus. And in doing so, God entangled the divine life with our own and became vulnerable. To being hated, to being overwhelmed, to being misunderstood.

Why? So that God could love us and with that love, transform us. So that God could take all of the hardest work of love on God’s self. So that God could love us the way we are supposed to love others. After all, we can’t truly love others unless we ourselves are truly loved. And that is what God, love in the flesh, has come to do. To love us when we are at our ugliest, our crankiest, our most impatient. God loves you when you are overwhelmed by too much to do, and when you are short with your kids or your parents. God loves you when the Christmas glow has faded, along with the warm and cozy feelings of this night. God loves you, accepts you, cherishes you, with the most perfect love there is, completely as you are underneath all of the trappings of Christmas.

So, breathe. The love that we are supposed to share at Christmas has already been shared by God with us. And while we celebrate what God has done on this one night a year, it turns out that God’s work of love is so complete that it extends past today, to tomorrow, and the day after that, and all the days to come. We can rest in this moment, and the next, and the one after that because God has come into the world, doing the hardest part of love for us. God has come into the world to love us two thousand years ago and now and forever. God has come into the world loving us and those around us even when we are at our most unloveable. God has done the hardest work––this is the gift of Christmas.

And so tomorrow, or even later tonight, when you’re gathered with those you’re supposed to love, and trying to love, and maybe not quite 100% managing to love, and feeling overwhelmed and impatient with yourself, remind yourself that it’s okay. The love of God has come into the world, for you and for those you love. The love we share with one another is, really, secondary to that. The presents, the food, the get-togethers are bonuses. We don’t need to get everything perfect, not even love. What we manage will be enough because God’s love is more than enough. Rest. Breathe. Everything is done. Love has come to live among us. Glory to God in the highest heaven. Amen.

Dec 24, 2017 - Advent 4 - Children Proclaiming the Gospel

This is the fourth Sunday since we began hearing the words from both Isaiah and John the Baptist proclaiming that a voice cries out in the wilderness. Depending on how you read the punctuation, these passages either tell us that there is a voice crying out that we are to make the paths straight for the coming of our LORD, or that the one crying out in the wilderness is making those paths straight. Either way, we have these prophets of God telling us to prepare for God’s presence, and for the last three weeks, we have been doing that.

And today we have the children proclaiming the Good News and preparing us for tonight.  Today, it is the children who are the voices crying out in the wilderness. The children are the ones telling us that Christ is coming.

You know, the children’s Christmas pageant is not just an exercise in cuteness. I mean, yes, they are clearly amazing and they tell us the Christmas story from a fresh perspective because it is still, in many ways, new to them. And yes, we love watching them up there - their shining faces bring us joy and their innocence touches us.

But we don’t encourage children to lead us in worship because we are sentimental, or because we want the children to feel important, or because we are hoping to create future leaders of the church, although these things are true. We encourage children to lead us in worship because we believe that God comes to us most clearly in those with the least power. When we proclaim that God became flesh in a tiny baby, we’re not doing it because babies look cute on Christmas cards. We’re doing it because a baby is the most powerless creature there is. While the Roman Empire proclaimed that a god’s power comes through the Emperor and through military might and physical strength, the first Jewish followers-of-Christ proclaimed the complete and total opposite: God’s power, true power, comes through those overpowered by the military and by physical strength. 

Two thousand years later, when we proclaim that our God came into the world as a newborn baby who simply cannot survive on its own without help, we continue to say something profound about our God. The central message of our Christmas story tells us that God has chosen to no longer work through the strong and the powerful, through the competent, or the adult. Rather, God has chosen to work in the world through the weak and the powerless. That is because it is the powerless who can most be trusted with God’s power, because it is the powerless who know, through experience, the damage that is caused when that power is misused. Among us, the weakest and the most powerless right now are our children.

And so, following Christ in this as in all things, we welcome them and we give them the greatest power––the power to proclaim the Gospel to us. It’s a dangerous thing we’re doing, actually. Proclaiming the Gospel, that God has come among us with grace and love, is a real act of power, because when we proclaim it, it happens. When I say, “God be with you,” God is with you. When I say, “God forgives your sins,” God forgives your sins. Not because of me, but because of the words themselves. There are no idle words in the proclamation of the Gospel. And here we are, giving this immense, profound, holy power to these children. We don’t trust them to drive a car, we don’t trust them to stay home alone over the weekend, we don’t trust them make decisions of any real significance. But we trust them to proclaim the Gospel to us.

Rather, I should say, we trust God. We trust and obey God who has told us that Christ comes to us in the powerless. And we seek them out so that we can hear what the Son of God has to say to us. We seek them out because when these children were baptized in the church, the Holy Spirit fell on them with “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in God’s presence.” God has sent them to us, and so we encourage their participation and we listen to their proclamations about God as they prepare us for Christ to come again. Not because they are super-cute, although they are, but because they are God’s prophets, sent to tell us that Christ is near. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Dec 21, 2017 - Longest Night Christmas Service

Isaiah 9:2-7; Isaiah 40:1-11; Matthew 11:28-30; John 1:1-5, 14

When I was child, I didn’t know that Christmas could be a tough time of year. For me, Christmas was all about the bright lights on the tree in the living room, and Hark! the Herald Angels Sing (although I was never quite sure how the angels were connected to the Calgary Herald newspaper), and my grandmother’s Christmas cookies, and of course lots of people at church. I remember Joy to the World! ringing out as the last hymn of the Christmas Eve service, with everyone singing with gusto. I remember getting lost amongst the legs of all the people in the narthex as I looked for my boots to change out of my nice church shoes when the service was over. I remember leaving the church and everyone calling out Merry Christmas across the parking lot, and riding home in the car feeling warm and cozy and excited to open presents.

I miss that. Or rather, I miss that feeling. I miss feeling the exuberant joy of Christmas. I miss enjoying the chaos of all the people and activities. To be honest, I’m envious of those who thrive on all excitement and frenetic energy this time of year. Because I’m not there. Not this year. This year I keep thinking about my grandmother, who loved Christmas, and especially the Christmas story. When I was little she sewed a little nativity doll set that we used to retell the Christmas story, and when she down-sized, she gave me her old German nativity scene, which I set up every year. She used to make special Christmas cookies that I would help her with, and her favourite hymn of all time was Lo, how a rose e’er blooming. She passed away a little less than a month ago. I saw her a few days before she died, and the kids and I sang Christmas carols to her while she lay in bed, but I’m not sure whether she knew we were there. We didn’t really get to say goodbye. And so this year, when it comes to the exuberance and excited celebrations of Christmas, I’m not quite there. It’s overwhelming. At times it feels burdensome––the heavy pressure to smile and to be happy to and revel in every minute of the holiday.

When we see the excitement and joy of others, but don’t feel the same way, it can be lonely. Isaiah describes it as living in a land of deep darkness, the Hebrew can even be translated as death-like shadow, something the Israelites experienced when they were in exile. And along with that feeling of loneliness or exile, we often feel guilty. We apologize to our friends and family, “I’m sorry, I’m just not feeling in the Christmas Spirit this year.” Or, “I’m sorry, I just don’t feel up to going to the children’s Christmas Pageant service this year.” We often excuse ourselves from participating in the more exuberant activities with an apology. As if we have done something wrong, or as if there is some failing in us. We can get down on ourselves for feeling overwhelmed by everything, we might feel bad that we can’t just “feel the love all around us” and “appreciate the season.” We see the joy and light on the faces of the children around us, and on others as they get wrapped up in the Christmas celebrations, and we know God is with them, in their excitement and love for the season. And we can wonder if God is with us, as we sit, not in joy and light, but in the darkness, in the shadow of death, feeling alone and inept. We may even wonder whether we will ever feel the joy and light of Christmas that we remember. Whether we will ever feel the presence of God the way we did before or the way others seem to.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness––on them light has shined.” These are Isaiah’s words to a people in exile, but they are also words for us. Whether your exile from the exuberance of Christmas is caused by circumstances beyond your control or self-imposed, whether your exile is new this year or an old, familiar place, these words are for you. These words, and those from the Gospel of John, “The light shines in the darkness,” are God’s gift to us at this time.

The comfort of these words is that they do not ask us to enter into a place of exuberance and excitement in order for God to be with us. God does not lay any guilt or accusations on us because we are still in the darkness. God does not put any expectations on us to join in the festivities. Instead of demanding that we travel to the place of light and joy, God comes to us, into the darkness, into the land covered by the shadow of death. God joins us in our exile.

This is the Christmas story, though, isn’t it? That God came to us in darkness, that the Son of God forsook his place next to the Father’s side and came down, exiled as it were, to be among us? That the Word of God let go of immortality and perfection and transcendence and eternity and infinity and all of that wonderful stuff and, instead, took on mortality, and imperfection, and being stuck in the here and now. The Word of God voluntarily came into our darkness, to this place in the shadow of death, and “lived among us.”

And this is the joy before us. Not the exuberance and excitement of children––it may well be that we will never feel that kind of joy again. But we are offered a different joy. A deeper one, if you will. Isaiah says that God has increased the joy of the nation in exile, and then goes on to say that God speaks tenderly to the people, and gathers up the lambs, and gently leads the mother sheep. This joy of God that is given to us in exile and darkness is a tender and gentle joy, if we can imagine such a thing. Rather than the blazing of stadium lights, it is the single, steady flame of a candle. If we are looking for the light as bright as the sun, we will miss it. But if our back is already to the sun, if our faces are already in shadow, it will shine before us, small but there. That subdued moment of joy, subdued but still present, is a sign to us that God is with us, that the darkness, no matter how deep, does not overcome the light.

After all, Jesus did not come in the middle of the day, with a hundred attendants, and trumpets proclaiming his birth. The heavens celebrated, to be sure, but no proclamation was issued from down here on earth. There were no gifts handed out to the masses, no feast day declared. The joy he brought with him was quiet, small to begin with, unassuming. It was only in retrospect that we came to recognize the greatness of his light and his joy. At the time, it was muted, covered, hidden from the Empire, even. And yet it shone.

This light shines for us, too, wherever we are. It shines in the candles we will light this evening. It shines in the friendly smiles of those who are gathered here tonight. It shines as we find a moment to sit quietly at home on Christmas Eve, and maybe listen to some beautiful music on the radio. And if there are tears, the light shines in those tears, too. God’s light is not lessened by our pain or our sorrow. God’s light shines in our darkness.

The light of Christ that we celebrate at Christmas, that is sent to bring us joy, is not meant to be overwhelming or a burden. Indeed, Christ says himself, “I will give you rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” God does not require you to be exuberantly joyful in your celebration of the birth of Christ––the light come into the world. Rather, God’s gift to you, this year and every year to come, is to come to you, to be the light in your darkness, so that you are not alone. The Word became flesh and lives among you, comfort, and even joy, for you on this day. Thanks be to God, Amen.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Advent 3 - Ridiculously Hopeful - Isaiah 55:1-13

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

“The mountains and hills shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” When I read this passage earlier this week, I have to admit that an image popped into my head of cartoon Rockies singing and animated pine trees lifting up their branches and waving them around, like some kind of wacky old-school Bugs Bunny cartoon. I had to laugh, because if you take this imagery literally, it’s pretty ridiculous. Singing mountains and clapping trees? It’s so absurd we have to smile.

The absurdity, or ridiculousness, of this passage begins even earlier, though, and in a more serious context. This part of Isaiah was written for God’s people in exile, who had been taken from their homes, and who were living in poverty and despair in a foreign land. And along comes Isaiah, saying to them, “you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money!” Isaiah tells people who are starving, both literally and spiritually, because they’ve been cut off from their Temple and from God, to come and buy what they need to be filled. Isaiah calls them to do what is impossible for them. His call to them is ridiculous.

Actually, it’s a bit obscene––encouraging starving people with no money to come and buy food. It’s a bit like opening a Lambourghini store in a city hit by a recession. Or like telling people who are addicted to drugs that they just need to have more self-discipline. Or like telling someone who’s been paralyzed by a car accident that they just need to get up and walk it off. It’s rubbing salt in the wound, so to speak. It’s cruel. And yet Isaiah is doing it. Isaiah tells the people to buy food. And more than that, even though they are in captivity in another country, and even though God’s home among them has been destroyed, he tells them that God has glorified them. In the midst of their utter humiliation, they are to delight. In the midst of their despair, they are to hope.

It’s ridiculous. Obscene. And yet they do. The people of Israel continue to delight in God, even though to the outside world they have nothing to delight in. They continue to hope, even though their situation is hopeless. They turn to God, even though to the world around them it looked as if God has abandoned or even betrayed them. Even today, despite everything that has happened to them, the Jewish people continue to celebrate the light of God in the world and God’s protection of them during this time of Chanukah.

But we do this too, don’t we? We, too, engage in this ridiculous behaviour of finding joy in the midst of tragedy. We, too, remain hopeful in the face of loss. We celebrate Christmas and the coming of Christ into the world in the midst of suffering and grief and a world on the brink of chaos. We look to new life after death.

It is ridiculous, and even obscene, to give thanks to God for this day when we are simply incapable of stopping loss and death, when we can do nothing to stop the day from coming to an end. It is ridiculous. Unless... unless... unless the cause of our joy and hope and celebrations lies outside of us. It is ridiculous for us to hope, unless our hope comes from God and not from ourselves.

This is what Isaiah is trying to tell us. Isaiah is trying to point out to his listeners that yes, it is ridiculous to buy food when we have no money, and to celebrate the glory of God when we are in humiliation. It is ridiculous because we can never do these things of our own accord. We cannot provide ourselves with food, and we cannot give ourselves glory. Rather, it is God who does these things for us. God, whose ways and thoughts are higher than ours, can bring into being a world that is more than we can even imagine. And it is God in whom we hope, and who gives us that very hope, and that is why it is not ridiculous, after all.

We can hope in God, because God’s word to us, God’s promises to us of new life, God’s promises to Israel that they would return from exile and be led back in peace, that they would never again be cut off from God, these promises are more than just words. God’s words to us are efficacious. They do what they say. Isaiah explains it by saying, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” 

Think about that for a minute––just as rain and snow become bread to eat, through the process of watering the soil and nourishing the kernel which becomes the plant which puts forth grain which is harvested and milled and baked into life-giving bread, so does the Word of God become life and joy for us, through the process of strengthening us and lifting our spirits and showing us the newness of all things. The Word of God calms our anxious minds, and brings peace to our hearts, and joy and hope in our sorrows. It is a mystery, to be sure, just as mysterious as why hydrogen and oxygen that make up water should be used by a plant’s DNA to ensure its growth into grain. But it is a reality. God’s word does what it proclaims. Just as in Genesis, when God said, “Light, be!” and Light was––so God says, Joy! Hope! Life! and there is joy, and hope, and life within us. It is ridiculous enough to make you smile.

And yet it is real. You all being here, after the loss of Gretchen, seeking comfort from God and worshiping and praising God for all things, is ridiculous, and yet real. The Christian proclamation that the world would be saved from oppression and healed and liberated through the birth of a tiny baby two thousand years ago is ridiculous, and yet real. Our belief that death is not the end of us, and that we continue to live in God is ridiculous, and yet real. Our hope that God will lead us in joy and peace, that the mountains will burst into song and that the trees will clap their hands, is ridiculous, and yet real.

To celebrate Christmas this year, in this place, with joy and with hopefulness is ridiculous. Yet, clearly, we find ourselves doing it. Not because we are delusional, or in denial, but because God moves us to. God’s speaks God’s Word and it comes to pass. God proclaims joy, and joy happens. God proclaims peace, and peace happens. God proclaims new life, and new life happens. It is ridiculous, and it is our hope. And so, today and in the days to come, may God’s Word spoken to you send you out in joy and lead you back in peace. May God’s Word strengthen you and fill you. May God’s Word be light in your darkness, and give you hope. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Advent 2 - Making a Home for Righteousness

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

So here we are in this season of Advent, waiting for God. Waiting for Christ to return, as he promised after his resurrection. Waiting for God’s kingdom to be here fully, where, as our Psalm says, steadfast love and faithfulness will meet, righteousness and peace will kiss each other, and the glory of the LORD will dwell in our land. We are waiting for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven, for the world to be made new. 

We’ve been waiting for a while now though, don’t you think? Almost two thousand years, actually, and I’m getting impatient with all this waiting. We know that the day of the Lord will come with a big bang and that everything we know will go up in flames, and that all the secrets of the world will be exposed, but when I read the news, I can’t help but think, the sooner the better. Climate change, nuclear war, gender-based violence, religious persecution of all kinds, corruption everywhere. What is God waiting for? I am so ready for righteousness, which means justice by the way, to be fully present among us.

As it turns out, our impatience for God’s kingdom to be here is not new. Only one hundred years after Jesus died and was raised, we have the second letter of Peter, our second reading from this morning. And in this letter, it’s pretty clear that Jesus’ followers are already impatient and wondering when he’s going to return. They, too, were ready for everything to be overturned and for God’s justice and righteousness to prevail. They were probably wondering, like me, when God was going to sweep in and take over and use God’s almighty power to punish the evil and rescue the good and make it all better.

But the writer of 2 Peter offers a different perspective. He starts by saying, “do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” Time does not work the same for God as it does for us. God has a much bigger perspective of the world than we do. Humans, as the species we are now, have only been around for less than two hundred thousand years. The planet we live on has existed for more than 14 billion years. God waited billions of years from the beginning of Creation to bring Jesus into the world the first time, and we are complaining about less than two thousand years of waiting. God’s timing is a little bit different than ours.

But 2 Peter raises what is the more important issue: “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” As it turns out, while we have been so busy waiting for God, it turns out that God has been waiting for us. God is waiting for us to prepare for what God is actually going to bring. God is waiting for us to be ready for Christ’s coming again.

Why? Because the world that we create while we are getting ready for God’s kingdom is the kingdom that will come. Let me repeat that: The world that we create while we are getting ready for God’s kingdom is the kingdom that will come. You see, 2 Peter says that our “leading lives of holiness and godliness,” leading lives of righteousness and justice, “waiting for” the coming of the day of God is actually “hastening the coming of the day of God.” In a remarkable upset, God has given us God’s own power, so that the ways in which we prepare during this season of Advent determine the world that will arrive. Our preparations determine the kingdom that will come. The home we create while we are waiting for God is the home God will give to us.

Now, God, clearly, is hoping for a place, as 2 Peter says, where “righteousness is at home.” So the question becomes: How do we create a home for righteousness? How do we live so that righteousness comes, the sooner the better?

The word “righteous” comes from the Hebrew Bible. It’s root, tzedeq, is connected to justice, and equality. It’s also connected to fairness and balance. For example, properly balanced weights that you might use in the market, are called “righteous.” Equitable division of food and resources so that everyone has what they need is righteous. Restoring the sick to wholeness, correcting injustice, redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor, ensuring that power is shared amongst all––these all fall under the category of righteousness.

Righteousness is not morality. Nor is it staying out of trouble. In the Bible, righteous living is active living. It is going out and striving for justice and balance. Sitting at home and passively waiting for justice to work itself out is not considered righteous living. The saying, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing,” reflects this concept. Martin Luther, when he was explaining the Ten Commandments in his Large Catechism, reinforced this idea that true righteousness is actively doing justice. In explaining the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not murder,” he wrote, “this commandment is violated not only when we do evil, but also when we have the opportunity to do good to our neighbours and to prevent, protect, and save them from suffering bodily harm or injury but fail to do so.” Luther says that those who do nothing in the face of need, who live passively while there is suffering in the world are guilty of murder. Righteous living is active living. Being at home with righteousness means being at home with justice––being at home with going out and actively dismantling structures of injustice.

But wow, is this hard! For one thing, this is a lot of work! Dismantling systems of injustice is no walk in the park! Our modern systems of equality took years and years of blood, sweat, and tears, literally. The abolishment of slavery by the British Commonwealth, the right for women to vote, labour laws that prevent child exploitation, universal health-care––any major change in culture that has resulted in greater equality and justice has taken years of toil and conflict. The reason that our Psalm says that when the Lord comes, righteousness and peace will kiss is because righteousness does not yet come peacefully. It comes through striving and, yes, conflict.

But there’s a second reason that righteousness is so hard. And that’s because it’s not something that can be imposed. We can’t force righteousness. We can’t force justice or equality. Coming in with sweeping powers and saying, “the world will now be fair and equal and just!” is the very opposite of the world actually being fair and equal and just. The command, “Share your power!” is kind of self-defeating. It is very difficult to make people feel at home with justice and righteousness by threatening or forcing them into it. It’s like demanding love. It doesn’t work.

Fortunately for us, God knows this. God knows that things like love, and righteousness, and justice can’t be forced. They can only be inspired. They can only be brought to fruition by people who have themselves experienced these things. If you have never experienced love, you will not know how to love. If you have never experienced justice, you won’t know how to be just. And so God models this for us. God acts towards us with righteousness and justice and love so that we will know what that looks like. So that we will be at home with it. So that we can recreate it and hasten the coming of God’s kingdom.

God does this by coming to us in weakness. Righteousness and justice are about lifting up the lowly and bringing down the powerful from their thrones, as Hannah and Mary sing in their canticles. God, whom we call almighty and omnipotent and the Creator of the universe and God above all, with unlimited power over life and death, God models the most righteous and just use of this power by surrendering that power. By coming as a baby, born to an enslaved people, under humiliating circumstances. God models the use of power by choosing to live a life of active servanthood and eventually dying for us. God did not come as yet another Emperor––the Emperor above all Emperors. God could have. But God didn’t. And God could bring about the end of the world right now, and impose justice and peace on the world. But God doesn’t. God chooses the path of righteousness, which means going out into the wilderness of others. It means going out and struggling with others. It means going out and actively working against injustice, giving our voice and our privilege to those who are suffering, and it means giving up everything for them. 

God models righteousness by refusing to force us to do what God wants, while at the same time tirelessly working with us to get there. God’s patience with us is a sign of that. God will not and will never force you to do God’s will, and anyone who tells you otherwise, who says that God demands submission or obedience is wrong. God’s relationship with us, which begins with a lowly birth in a manger, is one in which God always surrenders God’s own power to us, so that we can freely choose to follow the path of Christ. So that we can freely choose to surrender our own power to others. So that we can take the privileges we enjoy, and give them away. We become at home with righteousness by giving others the freedom and power that God is daily giving us.

There’s a cartoon by William DeBurgh, where Jesus is sitting on a park bench, next to a well-meaning, nicely-dressed person. And the person asks Jesus, “Why do you allow things like famine, and war, and homelessness to exist in our world?” And Jesus says, “Interesting you should bring that up––I was about to ask you the same thing.” 

We are waiting for Jesus to come again. We are waiting for God’s kingdom, the home of righteousness. And God is oh-so-patiently waiting for us. Let our waiting hasten the coming of the day of God, where righteousness is at home. May our acts of living say, Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Advent 1 - The Shifting of the World

Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37

How do you handle change? I don’t mean things like changes in the weather, or your favourite cereal coming in a smaller box. I mean massive change. How do you handle your world shifting beneath you? How do you handle things while you’re waiting for everything to settle down?

Our Gospel passage for today, this first Sunday of Advent, invites us to think about these questions. When the author of the Gospel of Mark writes about the days of suffering, and the sun and moon being darkened, and the power in the heavens being shaken, he’s reflecting the situation in which the Jews found themselves during the fall of the Second Temple in the year 70. Their world had been shaken, in a most devastating way, and was still shaking, and they were waiting for things to settle down.

This experience is, sadly, nothing new. There have always been times in history, either world history, or the history of a congregation, or even in our own personal history, when our world is shaken in devastating ways and we’re waiting for things to settle down. It’s a common experience in our lives, even if it feels incredibly uncommon when it occurs. And so we have Jesus talking about the time of waiting, that period when we endure the shaking of our world, saying that this time is like servants waiting for the master of the house to return from a long journey but nobody knows when that will be. We have Jesus saying that the servants of the house will have to endure an unsettling period of waiting.

So how do you feel as you wait for your world to settle down? It seems to me that waiting for the world to stop shifting, waiting for the master to arrive, can provoke quite different reactions. On the one hand, we can be hopeful and excited. The change that we are encountering, the way in which our world is shifting, might be so awful in and of itself that we are grateful for an end to it. When I was a child, I remember how much I hated having a substitute teacher in the class. When the regular teacher was away, schedules were all upset, and rules weren’t followed, and no one behaved. The classroom was always chaos. I couldn’t wait for the regular teacher to get back and to restore order. But I liked my teachers. And that influenced how I felt about the unsettling period when the one in charge was away. When it comes to Jesus’ parable, if we have experienced the master of the house as good, and kind, and caring, and just, and a stabilizing influence, then we will be hopeful and excited about him returning, no matter what the time.

On the other hand, if we have experienced the master as judgmental, and unfair, and abusive, we will endure the time of waiting with anxiety and fear. For example, I can imagine that my reaction to a substitute teacher would have been much different if I had not liked my regular teacher. If my teachers had been unfair, and too strict, and belittled students who made mistakes, or if I had gone to school in a time where bad behaviour was punished by the strap or a ruler, I can see that I would spend the time waiting for the teacher to return with great anxiety. What would they say when they got back? Would they have some new punishment ready for all the infractions committed when they were away? Would they have some new rule nobody could follow? When it comes to Jesus’ parable, if we’ve experienced the master of the house as power-hungry, and harsh, and unjust, then it’s perfectly natural that we would be anxious and fearful about him returning, no matter what the time.

Today’s Advent message is that when the world is shifting underneath you, it’s a sign that the master is coming. And when we hear that, we can feel hopeful or anxious, or both, depending on our past experiences. But Jesus gives us a clue as to what kind of master to expect. He hints at whether we should be hopeful and excited, or anxious and fearful. Jesus says, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that [the Son of Man] is near.”

“Summer is near.” Surely this is something we can identify with as a symbol of good things to come. Jesus and the audience of the Gospel of Mark never knew winter like we do, with the cold temperatures and sometimes snow, and most importantly less than eight hours of sunshine every day. Jesus didn’t know the kind of giddy excitement for summer that we feel by the time March rolls around, but he did know that summer is the time when fruit is ripe and grain is ready for harvest. Summer is the time when food is plentiful and life is full.
And so when Jesus says that the Son of Man’s arrival, the master’s return to the house, is like the shifting of the world from winter to summer, we can understand that he means it is a good thing. The world shifting, as unsettling and painful as it might be, can be endured much like winter––with discomfort as the days get darker, yes, but also with hope and joy that summer is coming. The master, our good master, the master who gently guides us, and forgives our mistakes, and heals our pain––this master is the one who is returning. The master who brings peace to chaos, the master who brings strength to the weak, the master who brings God to us––this master is the one we’re waiting for.

This is why we have a church season called Advent. The purpose of Advent is not only to prepare us to celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus, even though that’s how we predominantly spend it. Advent is also meant to help us wait for the return of the master to the house. It’s meant to open our eyes to the ways in which our world is shifting in preparation for the Son of Man to come again. It’s meant to help us handle change with hope, rather than anxiety, by reminding us that all change ends with the return of our good master.

It’s not lost on me that in this congregation called Advent, you have been going through your own Advent season for a while now. In many ways, this congregation’s world has shifted quite a bit beneath you, and I have no doubt that as you wait for it to settle there is both hope and anxiety. This is natural. But as we celebrate this liturgical season of Advent, may God give you the faith to trust in Jesus’ promise that this period of waiting, like all others, will end with summer and stability and new life, and may God’s Spirit give you hope that outweighs your anxiety. Yes, the world is shifting, but our good master is coming. And so we say, with hope and joy, in this place of Advent, in this season of Advent: Come, Lord Jesus, Come. Amen.